Progress in arguably the toughest division in college football is best chronicled in baby steps.
While Ole Miss reached bowl games and won them in Hugh Freeze’s first two seasons — they beat Pitt in the Compass Bowl in 2012 and Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl last year — and delivered two top-20 recruiting classes, they have yet to finish higher than fifth in the SEC West.
But there was progression as the Rebels, despite finishing sixth last year in going 3-5 in-conference, beat then-No. 6 LSU, lost to Auburn by eight, Mississippi Sate by seven and Texas A&M by three.
With 15 returning starters, including a healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback, and what should be a dominant defensive line led by Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss is positioned to do more than take another small step in Year 3 under Freeze, it’s poised to content.
Wallace’s 3,346 passing yards were second only to Johnny Manziel in the SEC, Laquon Treadwell is the league’s top returning pass-catcher with 72 receptions as a freshman, Evan Engram was an all-SEC tight end despite missing five games, and the Rebels return two running backs with over 500 yards in I’Tavius Mathers (563) and Jaylen Walton (523). Add in an all-conference tackle in Laremy Tunsil and an offense that was 21st last season (473.3 yards per game) should be closer to 500 this time around.
The defense with that front and a secondary that, despite finishing eighth in the SEC in pass D (215.5 ypg), returns All-American Cody Prewitt at free safety, brings back nine starters in all. That ties the Aggies for the second-most of any conference team on that side of the ball.
Donte Moncrief ended his career third in Rebels history in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs and Jeff Scott — despite missing five games last season — yet still wound up fourth on the school’s all-time rushing list. The good news is that Treadwell showed last season he’s more than capable of becoming the No. 1 wide receiver, and the Rebels spent so much of last year without Scott, that they know what they have in Mathers and Walton and redshirt freshman Jordan Wilkins can add a power component at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds. The departures won’t be as difficult to shoulder as the spots in program history would indicate.
Can Wallace find consistency in his game? While he had four game of at least 301 yards last season, including 416 vs. Arkansas and ranked in the top 20 in completion percentage (64.8), Wallace was 50th in the nation in pass efficiency (138.1) as he threw 10 interceptions to go along with his 18 TDs and has tossed 27 picks over the past two years. He’ll need better protection from a line that allowed 27 sacks, including six vs. Auburn, but word is he’s healthy after battling shoulder issues since 2012. His development could be the difference in the Rebels being competitive and being West contenders.
The Rebels can take the leap and get out of the middle of the West. Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M all could crack the preseason Top 25 and rival Mississippi State should be right on the outside. So while the star power of Manziel, Tre Mason, AJ McCarron and Zach Mettenberger is gone, it gets no easier. The Rebels do get both Alabama schools at home and draw Vanderbilt and Tennessee out of the East, but it’s taken seven wins to claim the division the past six seasons, meaning Ole Miss is going have to win at either LSU or Texas A&M.
Nov. 29 vs. Mississippi State: The Egg Bowl figures to have serious national appeal as quarterback Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs hit The Grove. While the Rebels won 41-24 in Hugh’s debut season, Mississippi State has won five of seven, including last season’s 17-10 overtime win in Starkville that put the breaks on what seemed to be swaying momentum in the Magnolia State. It’s cliche for a reason saying rivalries mean more, but with two teams that have designs on contending for the West title, this game has the potential to have major implications for the first time since 1998, when the Bulldogs used a victory to reach the SEC Championship Game.
The non-conference schedule starts off with a high-profile meeting with Boise State in Atlanta, but every game is winnable as the Rebels also get Louisiana-Lafayette, Memphis and Presbyterian. It’s all really about October, as they host the Crimson Tide, go to A&M, then face the Volunteers in Oxford before a trip to LSU. It’s a stretch that should decide whether this team is ready to be an SEC challenger or an also-ran. It’s hard to imagine Ole Miss not getting out of that month at 2-2, which doesn’t sink their season, but puts even more pressure on a November that opens with defending SEC champions Auburn at Vaught-Heimingway. Nine wins is a step forward and would be the most for the Rebels since they reached the Cotton Bowl in 2009.